Boris Pistorius, Germany’s new defense minister, was appointed last month amid criticism at the pace of the rollout of the so-called Zeitenwende, or turning point, in its defense policy and a 100 billion euro special fund to revamp its armed forces. He spoke to The Washington Post about his plans to speed up procurement and seek more funding as deliveries to Ukraine eat into stocks for the country’s long neglected military. The interview has been edited for clarity and length and translated from German.
Germany pledged to revamp its military after Ukraine. Now it’s worse off.
Q: We are nearly a year on from Zeitenwende speech and the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Germany has made deliveries of tanks and ammunition but replacements have been slow, is the German Bundeswehr in a worse state than it was a year ago?
I believe that all armed forces involved in supporting Ukraine have fewer resources in the war against Russia today than before the war. I think that is a relatively simple assessment. Because in the end, it is also absolutely clear that given the rate at which material and weapons and ammunition are being provided, it’s impossible to reorder and deliver again. That takes longer than the time it takes to hand over materials.
And that also describes the dilemma we are all in. We come from a period of almost 30 years, in which the armies had completely different assignments, in Europe at least, compared to before. In that time, and I can say this for the Bundeswehr and other forces too, investments have been redirected. Savings were made, and now we have to top up, on the one hand … and at the same time provide Ukraine with maximum support. And this, against the backdrop of industry delivery times.
Q: How does that impact operational readiness of the Bundeswehr?
I would say only to a limited extent, only in parts. Because that’s exactly what we need to pay attention to, if we’re talking about tank delivery or anything else. Our responsibility as Germany alone, our joint responsibility as Germany for protecting the eastern flank obliges us to keep ourselves defensible accordingly. So that’s why we need armored units that work.
Q: Have replacement orders now been put in for replacements?
There have already been reorders for purchasing ammunition. We also talked to Krauss Maffei about the replacement of the Leopard 2 A6s in the form of 2 A7s. There are no contracts for this yet, but the manufacturer is already preparing for the contracts to be signed in the next few months so that it can start immediately. That’s what we’re doing right now so we don’t waste any time.
The budget for the tanks is also there. And we purchased ammunition worth more than 800 million euros last year. That is more than we had available in the budget. And we have 1.12 billion euros available this year for procuring ammunition and it will certainly go beyond that.
Q: Given that Europe is facing the biggest security crisis since the Second World War, do you think time has been wasted in the past year? When it comes to getting orders to industry — we’ve had industry crying out for orders — do you think more urgency could have been there?
To be honest, I’m not focusing on the past year. I’ve been in office for four weeks. I am responsible now and we are doing everything we can to do what is necessary as quickly as possible. And you must not forget that the special fund, the Zeitenwende speech, is from February 2022. The special fund was made available and passed in the summer and afterward the appropriate conditions had to be created to spend the money. You might well have been able to commission one thing or another sooner but … I’m looking ahead and looking at my current responsibilities.
Q: On Germany’s procurement system, people talk about its “gold rimmed” expectations for orders and the bureaucracy, is that something you are planning on working to change?
This “golden rim” mentality actually existed, but it’s changed. The current situation is simply changing awareness. In times when there was no war in Europe, you worked in a completely different way because you had no pressure on security. We have already become significantly faster and are still getting faster because we simply have to adapt to the circumstances.
We’re looking where we can dismantle bureaucratic hurdles, where we can simplify the conditions under which orders can be placed. But all of this also takes time.
Q: When do you see Germany fulfilling its NATO commitment to spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense?
We are currently in the process of negotiating the budget for 2024 and planning for the next few years. And the goal will be that we at least reach this 2 percent over the next few years. That is the goal. This will now have to be negotiated with the coalition partners. I don’t want to jump ahead. In any case, I am also clearly of the opinion that 2 percent should be the starting point and we will have to spend more in the medium term.
Q: Some of the 100 billion euro fund has been lost to inflation and interest fees. Some people say it’s more like 300 billion that is needed, are you working toward getting a top up?
I also believe that 100 billion, in the long run, won’t be enough to do what everyone says must be done. But I tend to think in steps. I must first have used and spent the 100 billion in such a way that the right priorities are implemented as quickly as possible. That is precisely the challenge. A discussion that deals with whether it has to be 2 or 300 billion only distracts from this. That will certainly have to happen in some form.
But just as significant is the regular budget, because, to put it bluntly, with every purchase of a new system, the upkeep and maintenance costs rise, i.e. running costs, personnel costs and more. If I invest a lot, I must also have an increase in running costs, because otherwise I’ll lag behind.
We need up to 10 billion euros more next year, but also in subsequent years.
For the 100 billion, it’s important not only to spend the money but also to do it with the right priorities and in the right order.
Q: But it’s already earmarked?
There is a plan for how it will be spent, but that is not set in stone. In view of the developing situation, we will take a look at it again. It is crucial that we quickly obtain the important things we need in the short term.
Q: Under your NATO commitments you’ve promised a new division to the eastern flank in Lithuania in 2025, will that be a stretch to fill?
It was a bit ambitious from the start, but I think we’re going to achieve that. It may be that we will have a problem, depending on what is necessary, including in Ukraine and what can be replaced. But we are prioritizing this activity.
Q: Could you give us an update on progress gathering Leopard tanks for delivery, and Germany’s delivery of Marder infantry fighting vehicles?
We will soon be able to deliver 40 Marders to Ukraine, at the end of March. And with the Leopards, we sat together again today and we will have 14 2 A6s from Germany, i.e. the most modern devices, and three from Portugal, i.e. 17. There may be two or three more, but we don’t know that at the moment.
And with the Leopard 2 A4, we’re at a scant battalion. Especially when you fill up with infantry fighting vehicles. There is the central challenge: both the maintenance, but above all the maintenance when they are in Ukraine, but also making them operational now. With some tanks, some work still needs to be done. And very, very important: ammunition and spare parts play a central role. Talks must be held with industry about this. All partners are always happy to point to Germany. But while Germany may be the location of the Leopard arms industry, it is private, they are private companies. And we ourselves as the Bundeswehr have not been using the Leopard 2 A4 for many years. That means we have virtually nothing for this device, not any spare parts … at most a bit of ammunition.
Q: Initially Germany said no to sending heavy weapons, Germany said no to tanks, it said even said no to sending weapons originally. Now Germany is saying no to sending fighter jets, is this going to be like previous nos?
We have a completely different starting position here. When it comes to tanks, we were in focus because we are a nation where the Leopard is built, the Marder is built. It is absolutely clear that we are in focus. With fighter jets, however, this is a completely different situation. It would be good if we are talking about one model to be used in Ukraine and not about four or five different ones, because of course the training is incredibly complex and also the provision of repair, replacement, delivery, spare parts and everything else. And that’s why it’s going to have to come down to one model and that’s probably one we don’t have. Therefore, someone else is more likely to have this discussion.
Q: On the discussions on Washington sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine, obviously the U.S. didn’t initially want to send Abrams, especially the Pentagon, has that had a negative impact on your relationship?
To be clear, these were talks that were held bilaterally between the German Chancellery and the White House. I wasn’t involved in that. I don’t have the feeling, even with the meetings now with Lloyd Austin, that this has any negative effect on our relationship.